US Roads, Bridges And Rails: Infrastructure Reaching Breaking Point

By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    The U.S. is now rated 24th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure.  (Photo / CountyLemonade via Flickr)

    The U.S. is now rated 24th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure. (Photo / CountyLemonade via Flickr)

    A new report released by the Council on Foreign Relations finds the U.S. is failing in its attempts to maintain infrastructure, citing an increase in traffic throughout the nation and a decrease in adequate funding — a scenario that could greatly impact America’s economic progress.

    In 2002, the U.S. ranked fifth in the world for infrastructure quality. By 2011, the U.S. ranking had dropped to 24th place. And while infrastructure is weakening, Americans are traveling more. American drivers have logged more miles, with highway miles traveled increasing 100 percent from 1980 to 2006.

    The last time the U.S. saw a major overhaul of transportation infrastructure was in the 1950s, under President Dwight Eisenhower. Now, according to the CFR’s infrastructure progress report, the nation is at a breaking point, without a comprehensive plan to rebuild and move forward.

    “A generation of U.S. infrastructure built 50 years ago is reaching the end of its lifecycle, and new construction has not kept pace with population growth,” the report card states.

    Renewing America Director and CFR Fellow Edward Alden addressed the first report in his blog post, claiming the U.S. enjoyed an advanced transportation system — but without action, it won’t miraculously last.

    “Americans understood this once upon a time, building the most impressive network of roads and airports in the world, as well as a solid freight rail system,” he wrote. “But for far too long we have been living on that inheritance.”

    While President Barack Obama has led unprecedented efforts to increase the nation’s infrastructure, setting aside nearly $50 billion in funding in his 2009 stimulus package and proposing progressive notions of creating an “infrastructure bank” of private and public funding, his efforts don’t come near touching the transportation funding deficit the nation will face.

    “Overall investment would be kept at current and inadequate levels, and spending priorities would also remain unchanged,” the report states, referring to Obama’s proposed infrastructure package. “State and local governments, in partnership with the private sector, will be forced to take the lead to find innovative ways to meet the country’s infrastructure needs.”


    Current funding levels not enough

    Annually, the U.S. federal government spends $49 billion on infrastructure costs, which contribute to funding for maintenance of roads, bridges and rail lines. Yet that figure, according to the CFR report, is far too low — 60 percent too low.

    Citing federal transportation commission studies, the CFR claims the nation would need to spend upward of $87 billion if it wants to avoid repairs that will only grow more costly with time. This, along with a poor transportation system’s impact on the economy, could have a negative impact on the overall U.S. economy.

    Since 2009, Congress has issued short-term extensions of transportation funding. Set to expire in June, Alden points to a possible shift in a new direction.

    “Reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, usually known as the highway bill, has always been contentious, but nevertheless it used to win approval routinely,” he wrote. “But the last multi-year bill expired in 2009 and has been replaced by a series of short-term extensions that make rational construction planning all but impossible for state and local governments.”

    Some states are working around the issue by creating their own private-public cooperation efforts. In Chicago, a $7 billion trust is created primarily through private funding for city projects. New York has developed a similar trust to the the tune of $15 billion. Yet, as Alden notes, there’s still need for federal funding in the projects.

    Aside from a lack of funding creating a real problem for future generations, it’s also having a direct impact on Americans’ pocketbooks and the U.S. overall economy.

    In 2010, congestion in traffic led to a wasted $101 billion worth of fuel, amounting to $713 per driver — that, in a time of economic disparity, had an impact on the overall economy. According to estimates published in the report, without that wasted money, the nation’s economic growth would have been slightly higher, with an additional .2 percentage points on the economic scale.

    If the nation doesn’t address this issue, or more specifically, Congress, with increased and effective funding for infrastructure improvement, the report alleges that “drag” on growth will reach 1.2 percent by 2020.

    While Republican control of the House and Senate isn’t expected to lead to increased transportation funding, the report shows two-thirds of Americans believe funding for infrastructure is either “extremely” or “very” important.

    What will remain to be seen is if Congress will move ahead in June with another short-term extension, or if it will seek alternative, long-term solutions to addressing a transportation infrastructure that’s due to expire — soon.

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